Well gee whiz, what is this? Football in Oklahoma?
This is the place where Barry Switzer ranted and raved, and where Oklahoma State was tackled for a loss by the NCAA for breaking a few rules on the way to winning. Right? This is land of the Big Eight, big hats, big steaks and big talk.
And then there is David Rader.
This is football in Oklahoma?
Gosh darnit, yes.
Rader coaches football at Tulsa, coaches it well enough to have the Golden Hurricane (9-2) ranked No. 23 in the nation and headed for San Diego State and the Freedom Bowl Dec. 30. At 34, he is the youngest head coach in Division I football. Has been for four years, ever since he took over the head job at Tulsa in 1988.
He is what you might get if you crossed Mike Ditka with Mister Rogers. A guy with a good football mind, a burning love for the game and desire to win, someone who is honest to the core.
And a guy who popped up on a float in early December, moving down Second Street and over to Boulder along with several Golden Hurricane seniors, as a grand marshal in a Christmas parade. With a big, goofy smile on his face. What in the name of Bud Wilkinson . . . .
“Was that a kick or what?” Rader said. “Gee whiz.”
Rader is as much Oklahoma as pickup trucks and barbecues. He was born in Tulsa, went to high school in Tulsa and was a quarterback on the Golden Hurricane team from 1975 to 1978. He married his high school sweetheart, who is also from Tulsa.
Except for a couple of years in the early 1980s, Rader has devoted his life to football. He knows how important the game can be in shaping lives, and nobody is more aware of the hold the sport has on Oklahomans than Rader.
That’s why, when the going gets tough, when Rader and his team have been whipped into a frenzy on a Saturday afternoon and the coach doesn’t think his players are getting a fair shake from the officials, Rader isn’t above curling his lips, taking a deep breath, getting an official’s attention and screaming . . .
Dangit, sometimes he just loses control.
“Sure I lose my temper,” Rader said. “This is not a perfect human being here. This is a guy who places his life in somebody else’s hands.”
One of the few things that runs deeper than football in the Rader household is faith. He will scream at a player for a mental mistake, he will even bring out the “claw” in practice--jerking a player by his face mask to make a point--but there are certain things he will not do. One of them is curse.
“It’s the way I was raised,” he said. “It’s the way I live.”
Controversies normally come big in Big Eight country, too. Under Switzer, Oklahoma’s quarterback once was jailed for distributing cocaine, and a couple of other players got into trouble for having guns in the dormitory.
Well, there was a controversy in Tulsa this season. At halftime of a game against Louisville, Rader scolded his team and threw a piece of chalk. A local writer reported that Rader even cursed, and the story got big play. But Rader denied cursing, and his team backed him up.
After completing his eligibility at Tulsa in 1978, Rader was drafted in the 11th round by the Chargers in 1979 and quickly traded to the New York Giants, where he spent the 1979 season as a backup. He was cut during fall camp in 1980, but his time in NFL camps allowed him to learn football from Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, Dan Fouts and Ernie Zampese, among others. He spent a couple of years in the early 1980s as a businessman, putting his major in mechanical engineering to use, before Ray Perkins, his former coach with the Giants, called before the 1983 season.
It was then that Rader’s coaching career hit the charts with a bullet. Here he was, 25 and never having coached before, and suddenly, here was Perkins hiring him as a quarterbacks and receivers coach at the University of Alabama.
“When the USFL came up, David talked to me in New York and asked me what I thought his possibilities were in that league,” Perkins said. “One thing led to another, and he said he might want to coach. I thought I might have had an opening in New York, but when the Alabama thing came up, I asked if he wanted to coach in college. He said, ‘Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.’ ”
So Rader flew to Tuscaloosa, Perkins handed him an NCAA rules manual and told him South Alabama was his area to recruit.
“I just saw in him as a player his attentiveness and alertness,” Perkins said. “He has a mind for the game, and David is a super person. He relates to people extremely well.”
From Alabama, Rader went to Mississippi State as an offensive coordinator in 1986 and then to Tulsa in 1987. His specialty is offense, which isn’t surprising, considering that he is a former quarterback.
But his specialty is also graduating players--15 of 17 Tulsa seniors will graduate this spring. Last year, it was 14 of 16.
“Gee whiz, you hope the only thing they learn (from football) isn’t what to call on third-and-three when you need a first down,” Rader said. “The important things there are: Are you prepared to get it? Do you execute to get it? And do you work with the team to get it? To me, those are the things you learn in football.”
This from a guy who quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Experience is a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”
Said Rick Dickson, Tulsa athletic director: “He’s a great fit. He represents himself and the university in the way we’d like it to be done.”
Which makes Rader a perfect target for his players. Some of his quirks leave him wide open, especially when players disagree with something he says.
“At appropriate times, we’ll say, ‘Oh coach, that’s bull!’ ” quarterback T.J. Rubley said.
Lo and behold--another of Rader’s favorite phrases--the coach laughs. The thing about Rader is, he’s having as much fun as any of his players. As a coach, he looks like the kid driving his parents’ car who just discovered his parents will be out of town an extra day.
During his first game as Tulsa head coach, he recalls thinking only that he hoped his team looked organized. A few years later, with his team headed to the Freedom Bowl, Rader hasn’t changed much. To him, coaching is a combination of learning from others and winging it.
“Janet (Rader’s wife) has this recipe from her mom for a cake,” Rader said. “Watching them put it together, you don’t know how they do it. But it comes out, it’s red and it’s good.
“You don’t put anything bad in the cake, but it doesn’t seem like everything you put in it goes together. But it works.”
The way Rader figures it, you learn from those around you. And you draw support from those closest to you. Ask him about this job or that job, and he says something like, “We liked it there.”
“We” meaning his family and those with whom he is associated.
“Hardly anything we do in life doesn’t require the help of some individual,” he said.
It’s the way he lives his life. Sunday mornings will be spent teaching Sunday school to high school juniors rather than breaking down game films. He will continue to be a deacon in the family’s church--they’re Baptist--and he will again coach little league.
“I get tickled at him when he comes across someone who doesn’t know what he does,” Janet Rader said. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you work?’ and David will say, ‘Oh, at the university.’ ”
The most prominent picture in his office at the university isn’t one of the aftermath of some great victory, or of his quarterback rolling out. It is a large framed shot of David and Janet Rader and their three children--Daniel, 6, Jordan, 5, and Kendall Leigh, 2--together, wearing Tulsa football jerseys.
You work as a team. You accomplish goals with others. You have a little fun and learn quite a bit along the way.
And one day, maybe you’ll wind up in a parade.